The well-worn quote we have all heard for many years now—“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”—is attributed to Winston Churchill, and whether it originated with the prime minister or not, the general sentiment certainly rings true for us all. Our history, as Americans, as Southerners, as people, could often more easily be forgotten, our mishaps and slips left in the comfortable silence of the past. But, as Churchill suggested, if we so readily surrender our pasts, especially our moments of weakness, we will never learn from our mistakes.
It is this attitude that inspired the leaders and community of Birmingham to develop the Civil Rights Institute over thirty years ago. With a history rife with racial unrest and turmoil, the city could have easily settled into an intentional evasion of its past, but instead it embraced it. Birmingham’s traditionally large black community has defined the city since its beginnings shortly after the Civil War (the city was settled in order to take advantage of the large supply of valuable ores and minerals in its soils). The Great Depression hit Birmingham hardest, pulling the already struggling black community further into the wells of poverty. Even with the prosperity of wartime, the city remained harshly and cruelly segregated. After World War II, black soldiers returning from defending their country began rebelling against the despotic discrimination so prevalent in their hometown.
Throughout the mid-twentieth century, racial tensions dominated Birmingham. A constant push-and-pull of an adherence to outdated discrimination, offset by a striving for equality, constantly tore the city. In 1956, for example, Alabama forbade the NAACP from operating within the state, but the Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth countered the law by forming the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. The city became the epicenter for the Civil Rights Movement when, in 1962, Shutllesworth asked Martin Luther King, Jr., and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference to join him in his fight against segregation in Alabama. The resulting civil revolt led to country-wide change. The movement in Birmingham finally pushed the federal government to pass legislation against discrimination.
So although Birmingham was a center of unrest, it was also the birthplace of our nation’s healing. In the decades following the Civil Rights Movement, the city struggled to find its voice regarding its past; how to retain the truth, but portray it in a healing manner? In 1977 Birmingham Mayor David Vann proposed the idea of a civil rights museum. Vann was inspired by museums of the Holocaust he visited while in Israel, which managed to portray remembrance of a terrifying past as therapeutic. Vann envisioned a civil rights museum as being similarly curative for Birmingham.
When Vann was replaced by Dr. Richard Arrington, Jr., Birmingham’s first black mayor, in 1979, Arrington chose to move forward with Vann’s idea. Though many in the community opposed the idea (why bring up the painful past?), the museum gained traction as Birmingham began to accept and celebrate its history. Throughout the ’70’s and early ’80’s, leaders in Birmingham appointed a Board of Directors, acquired a site, and, after much debate, attained the funds to build the Civil Rights Institute (the task force chose “institute” rather than “museum” to imply an action-oriented establishment, as opposed to a relic of history). On November 15, 1992, David Vann’s dream became a reality when the Civil Rights Institute was officially dedicated.
Today the Civil Rights Institute opens its doors to visitors from across the country and the globe. Situated on the site of the 1963 marches and demonstrations, the Institute sits on holy ground. Surrounding the Institute is the historic black business district, including the old Carver Movie Theatre, the Kelly Ingram Park, where people would gather for protest marches, and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where four girls died in a segregation-era bombing. The hollowed grounds of the Civil Rights Institute defined our nation and continue to do so. Exemplifying this is the Institute’s mission statement: “To focus on what happened in the past, to portray it realistically and interestingly, and to understand it in relationship to the present and future developments of human relations in Birmingham, the United States, and perhaps the world.”
The Civil Rights Institute is not simply a site of remembrance but for change. With rotating exhibitions, after-school and public programming, outreach programs, and teacher education, the Institute is constantly working towards improving the future of the community, even as it reflects on its past. Winston Churchill also said, “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” The Civil Rights Institute is re-writing the history of Birmingham, and for that, history, and America, will be unwaveringly kind.